Sunday, March 01, 2015

February 2015 reviews

Highly recommended this month: Whitehorse, Keita Juma, Pops Staples

More than worth your while: Asaf Avidan, Belle and Sebastian, Mavericks

Also: The new Del Bel record.

But mostly I spent February still listening to the new Sleater-Kinney record. The Toronto show on Monday, March 2, is still not sold out! What’s wrong with you people?! Check this if you need convincing.

Asaf Avidan – Gold Shadow (Sony)

Last year the music world lost Jimmy Scott, a diminutive, androgynous singer who started his career in the jazz age and enjoyed a renaissance late in life thanks to David Lynch movies. Scott was unique; the only singer who remotely resembled him was Nina Simone, who of course was one of a kind herself. Asaf Avidan is a young, male, heterosexual Israeli singer in the same vein: between gender, steeped in torch songs and melancholy, a singer not of this time or any other.

Gold Shadow, his third solo album and first North American release, is the rare record that sounds like it could have been recorded any time in the last 40 years, with production touches that range from Van Morrison to Sam Smith, with stops on Broadway and German cabarets along the way. With a voice like his, Avidan could easily phone it in and astound us with his vocal versatility alone. But he’s also got solid songs, biting his teeth into a lyric like “I will be the jail that sets you free,” or, “I love you like God loves his son” (how’d that turn out, by the way?) and refusing to deliver 11 songs that easily fit into the same mould.

By the time Gold Shadow closes with two songs that could have been heard on Leonard Cohen’s first album, you’ve forgotten about the swaggering R&B that opened this show, or the barking blues of “Bang Bang” or the tracks could have come from the pen of either Jack White or Amy Winehouse. I can’t same a single Israeli artist whose ever broken through in North America, but if anybody should, it’s this guy. (Feb. 5)

Download: “The Jail That Sets You Free,” “The Tunnels Are Long and Dark Are These Days,” “These Words You Want to Hear”

Belle and Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)

On their 2013 tour, the highlight of Belle and Sebastian’s set was a full-on disco number that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Daft Punk album. The band had long shook its reputation as fey shut-ins with whispered vocals and flute solos; they had slowly evolved into a rock band over the course of their first decade. But this song—their live take of a DJ’s remix of a B-side, “Your Cover’s Blown”—was a whole other direction. It later surfaced on that year’s odds-and-sods collection, The Third Eye Centre.

That track now informs one-quarter of this album, which finds Belle and Sebastian embracing Euro-disco while sacrificing none of what has always made the band unique: their love of British pop music history—from ’60s folk (Nick Drake) to ’70s glam (T. Rex) to ’80s new wave (the Smiths) to ’90s Britpop (Pulp)—and American R&B and the gentle voice of leading man Stuart Murdoch, with time in the spotlight for violinist Sarah Martin and guitarist Stevie Jackson. (And, on “Play for Today,” a stunning guest spot by Dee Dee Penny of Dum Dum Girls.) The three disco songs are centerpieces, but they’re balanced by songs that wouldn’t be out of place on any Belle and Sebastian record of the last 20 (!) years, as well as a strange but seamless klezmer detour on “The Everlasting Muse.” Don’t be surprised to see an extra percussionist on stage with them this year: congas and bongos abound. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Play for Today,” “The Cat With the Cream,” “Enter Sylvia Plath”

John Carpenter – Lost Themes (Sacred Bones)

John Carpenter wrote and directed some of the greatest horror and suspense films of the late 1970s and early 1980s: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China among them. He also wrote all the music, including the incredibly creepy piano theme from Halloween, which has become just as much of a musical cliché as Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho theme. The only one of his films he didn’t write the soundtrack for? In 1982, he decided to trust some guy named Ennio Morricone to score The Thing.

Carpenter has been fairly quiet lately: he’s only made two films in the last 15 years. This, however, is an album of instrumental music not connected to any of his films—even though it would suit any one of them. Carpenter doesn’t write orchestration; his music is easily performed by a rock band with several keyboardists and two guitarists playing harmonized leads. It sounds like he’s still using the same keyboards he would have used 35 years ago, Moogs and other analog synths, the kind that mostly only French acts Daft Punk and Air still employ.

If you’re of a certain age, old enough to have had his films leave a mark on your adolescence, Carpenter’s music is evocative, creepy and beautiful. Even if you’re not, however, Carpenter’s Lost Themes displays a depth and invention that the next generation of soundtrack composers would do well to study. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Vortex,” “Fallen,” “Wraith”

Ron Hawkins and the Do-Good Assassins – Garden Songs (Pheromone)

Now that we’ve been told all the Lowest of the Low reunions are finally no more—but never say never!!—it’s time to be reminded that Hawkins does just fine on his own, thank you very much. As proof, here he is with his ace band, offering a live-off-the-floor collection of ballads and mid-tempo material (apparently an album of rockers is due shortly). It’s what Hawkins does best, where his lyrics are given space to sink in, where the richness of his voice really shines, where cellos and accordions bring out more in his material than loud electric guitars do. He’s recycled a couple of songs from earlier (not widely heard) releases, like the should-be-a-classic “Small Victories,” but that doesn’t matter even if you have heard them before. The new material, including a tribute to the late David Foster Wallace (“D.F.W.”), shows that he’s certainly not in a slump. On the contrary: he tells us that two more albums are imminent. (Feb. 5)

Download: “D.F.W.,” “South Ontario,” “Saskia Begins”

Ibeyi — s/t (XL/Beggars)

Ibeyi sound great on paper; their debut album sounds almost as good. These two sisters are Venezuelan-Cuban twins who live in Paris and sing in English and Yoruba (a Nigerian language spoken by slaves sent to Cuba 300 years ago; it’s now spoken there only in religious services). Their father was a percussionist in Buena Vista Social Club; he died when they were 11, before they embarked on their musical path. This album arrives on the boutique XL label, home to Adele, Radiohead, The XX and Vampire Weekend. The single-shot video for the first single, “River,” is haunting and beautiful.

The rest of the debut doesn’t quite live up to that hype, though the sound of these two sisters’ voices is undeniably gorgeous, a fierceness shining through despite the muted nature of the electronics and arrangements surrounding them. They could either head in a jazzier direction or one with harder-hitting beats; right now they seem caught in between. A few more steps in either direction would do wonders. In the meantime, they’ve got a “River,” and they’ll skate away with one of the strongest debut records of 2015. (Feb. 26)

Download: “River,” “Ghosts,” “Stranger Lover”

Keita Juma – Chaos Theory (independent)

Toronto hip-hop is often presented as disciples of either Drake or elders like Kardinal Offishall or Saukrates, but Mississauga’s Keita Juma is on a whole other trip. Minimalist, futuristic, oblique, he’s not an easy guy to figure out. But maybe that’s only because these days we expect hip-hop to be one-dimensional, to spell everything out for us. Chaos Theory, on the other hand, is a hip-hop haunted house, Timbaland on acid, the MC spitting verse in a fun-house mirror. Only one track here veers remotely closer to the conventional, “Come Over,” a four-on-the-floor booty-call set to an early Chicago house beat. Keita Juma’s beats generally bounce all over the place; he’s a wildly inventive producer who often changes direction entirely in the middle of a track—check the avant-garde “YReWeOnThisBeach,” where the relaxed, charismatic MC finds himself adrift in the Canadian wilderness, searching for inspiration. Wherever he finds it, Keita Juma manages to create truly haunting, hallucinogenic hip-hop, the likes of which is all too rare in this country or anywhere else. (Feb. 5)

Download: “Chaos Theory,” “Peace In/Peace Out,” “Come Over (feat. Brendan Philip)”

Andy Kim – It’s Decided (Arts and Crafts)

Yes, it’s that Andy Kim, of “Sugar Sugar” and “Rock Me Gently” fame, the Montreal native who has likely made millions in royalties over the last 45 years and yet has little to no name recognition today among anyone under 50. Enter Kevin Drew, ringleader of Broken Social Scene and co-founder of the Arts and Crafts label, who was among the dozens of CanRock icons from all generations who would wind up playing one of Kim’s annual Christmas shows for charity in Toronto. In Kim, Drew saw an equally earnest, emotionally vulnerable man, the kind of guy who stares you in the eyes and tells you he believes in the power of love. No winking, no irony—the real thing.

Kim’s last attempt at a comeback produced a great record, 2011’s Happen Again, the kind of record befitting a pop music elder making music for his peers. No one heard it. Drew wanted Kim to be heard by a whole new generation, and so offered to produce and release a new album. Kim had nothing to lose.

He surrendered to Drew’s instincts, for better and worse: It’s Decided sounds remarkably similar to Drew’s 2014 solo album, Darlings—not just sonically or in the arrangements, but even in Kim’s vocal phrasing; one could easily hear Drew’s voice on this record instead (even though Kim is obviously, from a lifetime’s worth of experience, a much more polished singer). The good news is that Darlings is one of Drew’s better records, and this is a worthy companion. The bad news—if you can call it that—is that one doesn’t get a sense of Kim’s own musical personality here, other than the fact that the man still knows how to write a strong melody and deliver it with conviction. Anyone who wants to hear something like “Sugar Sugar” is better off sticking to oldies radio; there is zero attempt here to recreate any of Kim’s earlier glories. This is a man looking forward.

Lyrically, It’s Decided carries a lot of weight: songs like “Why Can’t I (Ever Find My Way),” “(Been Away For the) Longest Time” and “Forest Green” are rich with regret, reckoning and melancholy; these are not songs for a young man to sing. Are they songs for a younger man to produce? Absolutely—especially with the respect Drew delivers to this project. (Feb. 26)

Download: “Why Can’t I,” “Sail On,” “Forest Green”

Mavericks - Mono (Big Machine)

Heading to Florida soon? This will get you in the mood. The best country band to ever come out of Miami (okay, that’s probably a short list), the Mavericks mined that city’s Latin sounds and mixed it with classic Americana—particularly Roy Orbison, to whom singer Raul Malo shares a remarkable vocal resemblance—and scored more than a dozen hit singles and plenty of awards. After an acrimonious split in 2004, they reunited in 2013; this is the second record of their comeback, and they now share a label with Taylor Swift, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the Mavericks sound better now than they ever did; their style of music never goes out of fashion. The only real test is whether Malo can hit all those high notes: yes, yes he can. And the songs are all knockouts: new classics by a classy band, through and through. (Feb. 19)

Download: “What You Do To Me,” “All Night Long,” “Summertime (When I’m With You)”

Purity Ring – Another Eternity (Last Gang)

It is, of course, possible in these days of miracle and wonder to make music with someone living in another city. That doesn’t mean you should. Purity Ring recorded their acclaimed 2012 debut, Shrines, while the duo was split between Montreal and Halifax, and it mysteriously struck a chord that landed them an international deal, rave reviews, and a spot on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist. How that happened for such a cloying, claustrophobic yet cutesy electro-pop record is hard to imagine. But it did.

Now they’ve recorded the follow-up while living in the same city—their hometown of Edmonton—and the difference is remarkable. Granted, Megan James’s vocals are still too precious by half, but the songwriting has evolved considerably, and the melodies and electronics are actually working together rather than at odds. If the debut managed to pole-vault them into a real career, this album—with massive synth sounds designed for stadiums in Europe—will seal the deal.

Me, I’ll wait for the next record—and be listening to the remarkably similar but far superior Sylvan Esso album of 2014. (Feb. 26)

Download: “Bodyache,” “Stranger Than Earth,” “Begin Again”

Pops Staples - Don't Lose This (Anti)

This could have gone very wrong. A dying legend’s last recordings, resuscitated 15 years later, with musicians who never met him providing the rhythm section and arrangements? That doesn’t usually work out so well.

In this case, however, Mavis Staples trusted her father’s recordings with her producer of late, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Why not? Tweedy’s approach with Mavis’s albums was bare bones, bringing out the full strength of her voice and character. Both Mavis’s albums and Pops’s feature Tweedy’s son Spencer on drums, proving the progeny to be a master of economy: simple, soulful beats providing needed backbone but largely staying out of the way. Other than the sweet honey of Pops’s voice, the real treat here is hearing his unique guitar style: often imitated, there’s nothing like the real thing. Don’t Lose This is also remarkable for one last chance to hear three Staples sisters; Cleotha died in 2013 (Yvonne still sings backup with Mavis). In fact, this was supposed to be a Staples Singers record, but the daughters wanted their father to be the focus.

After two incredibly productive decades in the ’60s and ’70s, the Staples Singers didn’t wear the ’80s very well; their final album in 1984 was a largely misguided attempt to chase contemporary sounds. This, on the other hand, is the way we should remember Pops Staples, a throwback to the gospel records that started his career. Though largely populated by new material, there are also songs here he’s played all his life: “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the latter given a syncopated, funky makeover. A cover of Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” closes things out

“Don’t lose this,” Pops told Mavis, handing her the tapes just before he died. Thank God she didn’t.

Postscript: Any fan of the Staple Singers will want to read Greg Kot’s excellent 2014 book I’ll Take You There, which is ostensibly a book about Mavis, although Pops is the real star. (Feb. 19)

Download: “Somebody Was Watching,” “No News is Good News,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine”

Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter)

Who’s burning bridges here? Not Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland, whose second full-length as Whitehorse is as welcoming and accessible and brilliant a mainstream rock record could imaginably be in 2015.

Start with the obvious: both are undeniably gifted musicians, handling all guitars, keyboards and percussion, as well as impeccable harmonies. On top of that, Doucet also holds a trump card: he is one of the best guitarists working anywhere in the world today. Anyone who’s seen their stripped-down live show, utilizing live looping and layers, knows all this.

On top of that, since ditching their solo careers and rebranding themselves they’ve also stepped up their songwriting game. This time out, producer Gus Van Go reportedly rejected their demos and told them to “go home and write ‘real’ songs,” Doucet told Exclaim!. Weird: this record is no better or worse than their near-flawless 2012 debut, The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss. If it’s to Van Go’s credit that he made them live up to their own standards, so be it.

Whitehorse already had a perfect package, so there are no complaints if they returned with more of the same: McCartneyesque melodies, Duane Eddy guitars, Emmylou-and-Gram harmonies, rockabilly shuffles, Blue Rodeo rockers, Pixie-ish oddball twists (the track “Evangelina” owes a debt to “Where Is My Mind”) and—well, you know, lessons learned from the last 50 years of classic rock albums. Expect Whitehorse’s discography to join that legacy sooner than later. (Feb. 19)

Download: “Baby What’s Wrong,” “Downtown,” “Evangelina”

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